Four predictions for the future of manufacturing, and how manufacturers can embrace today’s technology to ensure success.

Many people look forward to the end of the year not only for holiday cheer, but the promise of a fresh start. 2020 was poised to be the beginning of a new decade, but it may go down in history as the year the world came to stop. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to shut down: people stopped gathering in close quarters, masks became the norm and factories came to a halt.

As we anxiously await the end of the year that wasn’t, I have had time to reflect back on what we have learned, and what we can look forward to in 2021. In fact, as the world reopens, I think there is a lot of potential for change.

This year saw humanity relying on technology more than ever to stay connected – families, friends and coworkers alike have used applications such as Zoom and FaceTime to maintain a sense of normalcy. I myself am thousands of miles away from my native Italy and have used technology to communicate with family back home. But the potential of technology isn’t limited to facilitating conversations between family and coworkers. In fact, I believe there is a big opportunity for technology, and artificial intelligence (AI) specifically, to further transform the way we work in 2021 and beyond.

Take an industry such as manufacturing as an example. The world of manufacturing has always been rooted in stability – there is a very direct process that gets products from the production line in warehouses to the shelves of stores. But, the pandemic exposed the need for innovative technologies such as AI and automation to keep operations up and running in a time where social distancing put restrictions around the number of employees that can be on the factory floor at one time. Now, the demand for new technologies such as AI is higher than ever before.

So I ask you, what is in store for the year to come? Here are just a few of my predictions for the future of manufacturing:

  1. Manufacturers will continue to embrace Industry 4.0, but with new sense of urgency and more concrete objectives in mind. Factories have become extremely complex, with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) collecting massive amounts of data via sensors and cameras on the floor. To cope with this complexity, manufacturers will implement AI-based solutions to make sense of the data, and generate insights that can be used to stay ahead of the competition. These insights will also enable them to future-proof operations against possible economic disruptions.
  2. In the new year, manufacturers and other human workforce-heavy industries will use AI to speed the adoption of technologies augmenting their work. Today’s automation systems still require human supervision, but I predict that in 2021, we’ll see more manufacturers turn to AI to improve processes such as quality inspections of products such as electronics, consumer goods, food and beverage, and more. With the help of vision AI, manufacturers will be able to easily identify any defects on the production line.
  3. Manufacturers will opt for AI embedded into inexpensive and lightweight solutions over those that are more complex and come with a higher price tag. 2020 brought economic hardships for all, so manufacturers are looking to invest in tools that get them the most ROI, without a massive upfront investment. These solutions will also give them the flexibility to adapt to changes in the supply chain and customer demands which have been one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic.
  4. Manufacturers will realize a need for explainability when it comes to their AI solutions. Traditionally explainability is needed around issues of bias and ethics, but as we see AI become more integrated into our everyday lives and real-world scenarios, we’ll need to establish trust. We humans will need to understand the “why?” behind AI’s decisions in setting such as manufacturing where AI will need to be both accurate and “explain” why a product is classified as “normal” or “defective.” This extra level of explainability will instill confidence in human operators whose time will then be freed up to focus on other tasks.

2020 has been a tough year for everyone – no one was able to escape the effects of the pandemic. From my hometown on the coast of Italy to my family now based in Boston, we’ve all had to adjust our expectations of what “normal” looks like. But as we look to the year ahead, I am hopeful that we can recognize technology such as AI as a tool that can be used to empower our workforces and keep society moving, even in the face of a challenge as big as a global pandemic.

Max Versace, CEO and co-founder, Neurala
Max Versace, CEO and co-founder, Neurala

Max Versace is the CEO and co-founder of vision AI company Neurala where he continues to lead the world of intelligent devices after his pioneering breakthroughs in brain-inspired computing. He has spoken at numerous events including a keynote at Mobile World Congress Drone Summit, TEDx, NASA, the Pentagon, GTC, InterDrone, GE, Air Force Research Labs, HP, iRobot, Samsung, LG, Qualcomm, Ericsson, BAE Systems, AI World, ABB and Accenture among many others. His work has been featured in TIME, IEEE Spectrum, CNN, MSNBC, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Fortune, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Nasdaq, Associated Press and hundreds more. He holds several patents and two PhDs: Cognitive and Neural Systems, Boston University; Experimental Psychology, University of Trieste, Italy.